Greetings from Vermont. I am the co-author of Living With Crohn’s & Colitis: A Comprehensive Naturopathic Guide for Complete Digestive Wellness (with a nationally-known naturopath, Jessica Black, ND). Our book has helped so many people afflicted with Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, part of the growing auto-immune diseases that cause diarrhea, bloating, nausea, vomiting, and cramping. These inflammatory bowel diseases, and other auto-inmmune disease are on the rise exponentially across the world, especially in the developed countries where processed food is available.
Think about it: There are certain behaviors that cause body/mind stress: We address this in the book, but I want to tell you that I am a patient/survivor of a stress-induced flare-up in 2006 that almost killed me. On my 5 foot 8 frame, I weighed 117 pounds. I spent a month at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. I was 45 and very sick, with 3 children at home and a business to run.
Stress was the way I worked, and I was on autopilot without taking time for myself. That has all changed, and I have been in clinical remission for the last 7 years! Let me tell you more….
As many readers know, I went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota this past May to have a complete second opinion. I spent two days of my weeklong stay, at the wonderful stress reduction clinic.
Here are some of my tips gained from my research, and how I try to keep my disease in remission:
A lot of us have low level stress. Most of us don’t live in the hyper-aware world, and we suffer the autopilot behaviors that contribute to what I call “the slow burn of stress response.” Our heart rate and blood pressure might be elevated, and our breathing and muscle tension is like this — shallow breathing and knots in muscles. There is an area at the base of the brain called the amygdala. This is the seat of our emotional reactions, or “flight of fight” response to stress. Many Americans live with this elevated, but low level elevation daily… a little bit of “Flight of Fight” stress is really okay, but not on autopilot.
Look at our brains — In our pre frontal cortex, there is an area responsible for relaxation, and it is not easy to stimulate and not an adrenal release, as per the amygdala part of the brain.
First we need to be aware of this pre frontal cortex We have to explore our own behaviors and habits, break out of autopilot, and participate in a personal practice. There are some things you can’t control, like weather or traffic jams; however there are some things we can control, and are important… An example from the workshop was if you have an overbearing mother (don’t worry, Mom, not YOU!), and how you need to take care of yourself first and use the excuse of health, and scale down. Awareness helps, and limit your exposure to stressful people and situations. It’s a process… keep boundaries in your mind, but “caring boundaries.”
Unhealthy responses to stress in our life are anger, etc. It is important to develop a healthy exercise routine, learn and use relaxation techniques (see below), and take care of yourself. This neural pathway gets easier and easier to tap into (see diagram at right). For example, my body knows and relaxes immediately when I walk into my home “yoga area” where I have a TV, and a carpet with a yoga mat. I use Rodney Yee’s DvD, “AM/PM Yoga,” and do the exercises every day… it gets easier and easier to tap into the relaxation part of my brain, and it is replenishing.
After a stressful day:
- Call a friend
- Read a book
- Walk the dog
- Ride a horse
- Volunteer at a soup kitchen
- Play the piano
- Do some gardening
In order to break out of autopilot, do a few things on this list on a regular basis.
Benefits: Concentration, Problem solving, Sleep…
We need to be participants: This involves “letting go of the wheel,” loosening your grip, and takes time and experimentation.
In the wonderful workshop, our instructor gave the analogy of flying on an airplane, and how you put the oxygen mask first, then help the child.
Talk therapy is another way to help relinquish the autopilot lifestyle… A regular monthly session with a trained, recommended therapist will do wonders for helping to care for yourself, establish boundaries, and feel safe.
Evaluate your stressors and prioritize your time, as you move forward in the break from autopilot.
Give yourself permission eg., “Be kind to yourself and ask for help.”
Often we don’t think about our career as a choice made for healthy reason, and it might be time to reevaluate what we do for work.
It is important to spend time with friends, develop hobbies…. Hanging out with people who make me laugh is a goal. A hospital study involved a control for two groups with the same malady: One group watched funny movies every day, and got out of the hospital faster.
It’s a process, and it is important to practice positive self talk.
Start a simple practice of Tai chi and chi gong
Walk around with a gentle smile on your face and try to share it with strangers—you use less muscles and tension when you are not frowning, which can contribute to an overall sense of well-being and a way to focus on releasing the internal stress caused by being on autopilot…
I have found this “small smile” technique that is practiced by Amit Soud, MD, the head of the Eastern Medicine Section of the Mayo Clinic to be essential as a way to lessen internal stress.
TAI CHI AND CHI GONG: These ancient exercises are easy and relaxing, often available in small towns across the United States. For example:
We breathe with about 40% of our lungs. If we can learn to take slow diaphragmatic breaths, we can effortlessly lesson our stress levels. These exercises are the foundation and essential for relaxed breathing.
A simple exercise I learned at the Mayo Clinic:
Take in a slow deep breath,
and fill your lungs so even your belly sticks out;
hold for a couple of seconds;
pretend you have a lit candle and exhale
so that the candle flickers.
Note to reader: it might take 8 weeks or so to start seeing results.